I've seen more than a few touring national stage productions of "The Wizard of Oz," from runs in outdoor theaters like Starlight Musicals in Indianapolis in 1992 to the 1999 tour starring the late Mickey Rooney that played Rosemont Theatre.
It was this same time of year that a national tour played Chicago Theatre in 2009.
I've been eagerly anticipating Broadway In Chicago hosting the two-week run of the new re-imagined production of "The Wizard of Oz" now playing through Sunday at Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago.
It stars spunky Danielle Wade as Dorothy, courtesy of casting from the actress being chosen by Canadian audiences via the CBC TV's reality show "Over The Rainbow."
While developed from the MGM screenplay, this new production not only contains all the beloved Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg songs from the Oscar-winning movie score, but also new songs by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Directed by Jeremy Sams, with Robert Jones dreaming up the set and costume design, this two-hour journey is definitely entertaining but also unusual for anyone expecting a nod to the traditional aspects of the "Oz" adventure. I'm not entirely a purist, someone totally opposed to change. In fact, very different summer musical stage version of "The Wizard of Oz" produced by director Marc Robin for Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier in 2002 was one of the best and most clever stage tellings of this the age-old favorite I've ever seen.
It's more "The Wizard of Odd" than "The Wizard of Oz," and I'm not convinced young children under age 8 or 9 would enjoy this trip down the famed Yellow Brick Road.
It's clear the creators behind this version are eager to capitalize on the success of Broadway's "Wicked." So for this version of the morphed musical, Glinda as portrayed by Robin Evan Willis looks, talks and acts like a fashion runway model, while the Wicked Witch of the West, as played by Jacquelyn Piro Donovan, has been given a sexy make-over and towering tresses. She also sports heaving cleavage, making her more deserving of the title of Wicked Witch of the Breast. (Personally, I prefer the old crone version.)
Jamie McKnight is my stand-out favorite, breathing fresh life and identity into the character of the Scarecrow. He creates some very funny and genuine moments of character interaction. And at times, I found myself amused just watching his understated, dim-witted reactions. Mike Jackson makes a sturdy Tin Man and offers solid pipes. While actor Lee MacDougall is great stepping into the lion role, I was not a fan of how the character's costume has been re-created, giving the character an almost transgender identity that is ambiguous at best.
Arlene Phillips has some moments of choreography to showcase, but nothing that wowed in every way. The production is also very heavy on Jon Driscoll's video/projection design, which I found distracting and an excuse to save on production scenery. In fact, with the exception of Glinda's initial arrival in Oz, both witches seem to just walk on and off stage, scene after scene, without so much as a puff of smoke or a floating-bound bubble. (The video projects do offer one certain bonus in the twister sequence, which is a rare glimpse of the usually never depicted Wicked Witch of the East, complete with striped socks and Ruby Slippers, flying on her broom and attempting to latch on to Dorothy's flying farmhouse.)
Change for the better is always invited. But change, just for the sake of change, is worse than a well-aimed bucket of water.
Tickets are $18 to $85 at (800) 775-2000 or BroadwayInChicago.com or wizardofozthemusical.com.
Oz Fest return
Two years after Chesterton decided to disband the annual tradition of hosting a Wizard of Oz Festival, it looks like "somewhere over the rainbow" is now Orland Park, Ill. According to the web site midwestozfest.com, the inaugural Midwest Wizard of Oz Festival is launching Sept. 19 to 21 at Orland Park's Centennial Park, 15600 West Ave., and it will be a free event. The festival organizer is Dave DeJohn, who counted himself a fan of Chesterton's festival homage to Dorothy and the gang and had attended with his children. His festival will also feature the same familiar celebrity guests as Chesterton's roster (minus Munchkins from the film), such as "Oz" historian John Fricke and Roger Baum, the great grandson of "Oz" author L. Frank Baum.
"I can't tell you how happy I am that you are going to keep the Wizard Of Oz festival going," said Jean Nelson, founder of Chesterton's Oz Festival, as quoted on the new festival's homepage.
"This is a family event that has brought so much pleasure to so many over the years. You are going to bring back my baby and I am so happy and pleased about it. I will be watching and helping if I can. GOOD LUCK!"